Sermon for Parashat Re’eh

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 17 August 2020

On Thursday afternoon, I finished reading “Like Dreamers” by Yossi Klein Halevi, fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, journalist and commentator on Israeli life and affairs. Published in 2013, the book is subtitled “The story of the Israeli Paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation.” The book is fascinating anyway, but even more so with yesterday’s news of diplomatic relations established between Israel and the UAE and a halt on the annexation of West Bank land, which of course began after the 6 Day War in 1967..

The photo on the cover is the famous one of paratroopers in 1967 having fought their way to the Western Wall. The angle of the photo means we see the men as they gaze over and beyond us, looking, as it were, somehow into the future, almost, reflecting the hopes of that generation of young Israelis who have had this amazing victory.

Halevi chose the title, Like Dreamers, because those words are in Psalm 126 which we sing at Birkat HaMazon: hayinu k’cholmim, “we were like dreamers.” In this book Halevi traces what happened to the dreams and aspirations of each of those paratroopers since 1967. One became the spiritual father of the religious Zionist West Bank settlement movement; another the spiritual father of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; another became a leading conceptual artist, ardent defender of socialist kibbutzim and very active in Shalom Achshav, Peace Now. Another travelled to Damascus in 1972 to help create an anti-Zionist terrorist underground and eventually served 12 years in an Israeli prison; another became the greatest Hebrew poet-singer of his generation. In effect those men represent a microcosm of the paths that Israel followed since then.

The book ends with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 – hard to believe it was already a quarter of a century ago! Yigal Amir the assassin came from that part of the West Bank religious community, who argued against Rabin’s policy of raccrochement, describing him as a rodef, a pursuer who comes after you to kill you. Now, according to Jewish law, in such a situation, you must do all you can to stop them, but if all else fails, you are justified in killing them. Amir could just as well have cited our sidra: “You shall put to death those who make you stray from the path that the Eternal your God commanded you to follow.” (Dt 13:6)

What Elinor read this morning is just a sort of continuation of earlier on in the sidra: “You shall not act at all as we now act here, each person as they please (Deuteronomy 12:8)

A moment ago we recited the blessing for the month of Elul. It’s the last month of the Jewish Year, so we are just weeks away from the Yamim Noraim. Erev Rosh Hashanah is on the 18th of September. Your rabbis are thinking about their sermons. We could do worse than build around a slightly-paraphrased version of that verse: “If every Jew does whatever they want, wherever they want, Judaism won’t survive another generation.”

The precariousness of Jewish survival is always a good preaching theme. That verse would fit well into a book about there not being a Jewish future – after all, isn’t everybody doing their own thing. I can see some ultra-Orthodox group in Jerusalem plastering the sides of buses with that verse; my colleague down the road at Kinloss might be building his sermon round this verse, arguing that putting personal practice (or lack thereof) over and above communal demands can endanger Jewish survival. And in our part of the Jewish world, we can imagine a sermon about how we resolve the tension between, on the one hand, individual autonomy, and central religious authority, on the other.

In that verse we can hear the voice of a community struggling with the consequences of permitting each individual to worship God however and wherever was personally meaningful.

Yet several times in this section and much more frequently throughout this last book of the Torah, we read about bringing sacrifices “to the place where the Eternal your God chooses to establish the divine name.” In other words, Deuteronomy is establishing the principle that you  worship the one God in one sort of way – with sacrifices – and in one place, namely the Temple in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Amy Perlin suggests we can read this verse through the traditional levels of interpretation: pshat, remez, drash and sod, known collectively as Pardes. Pshat – the literal meaning of the verse is simply that when you come into the Land, you no longer have autonomy to sacrifice wherever you please, as you did in the wilderness; remez – a hint within the text, suggests that having a centralized authority is a problem for a lot of Jews who like doing things their own way; drash – what does the text teach for our time? suggests that there will always be those who fear that spiritual autonomy can become dangerous when it threatens to destroy the survival of our communal religion and our community. The sod – the hidden secret meaning of the text may be that Jews who do solely as they please and don’t perpetuate the centralized institutions of Jewish life (primarily the synagogue, today), may well find personal fulfilment, but might be threatening long-term Jewish survival in the process.

200-ish years ago, Jews who would later be called ‘Reform Jews,’ were reacting to strict communal authority, which gave little space for individual autonomy and was unresponsive to the world around them. Those early Reformers wanted greater autonomy to practice a Judaism that enabled them to live in the modern world, while continuing to practice their Judaism on their own terms.

But that’s not the issue for our time. That struggle has been won. In a way the victory has been too complete, too total. If Judaism then had been over-restrictive, over-focussed on obligation – today, it is understood as being totally unrestrictive. Imagine if I were to start preaching to you about your Jewish obligation. You would quickly start telling me that if you wanted that, you could go to the orthodox synagogue. ‘Obligation’ and ‘personal autonomy’ are seldom comfortable bed-fellows, and personal autonomy usually wins out over obligation..

Yet personal autonomy is one of the bedrocks of our Jewish life. But if we are going to argue for that personal Jewish autonomy – that ability to choose what our Jewish life will be, then it has to be an autonomy which speaks out of a knowledgeable understanding of the choices offered by Jewish teaching, history, experience, life, spirituality.

So that verse in our Torah reading is a challenge to us. Personal Jewish autonomy does not mean each of us doing as we please but struggling to balance our personal spiritual needs and convenience with our communal need for a Jewish practice and sense of religious obligation that will ensure our survival. That was the issue at the time Deuteronomy was written – it is no less an issue in our time.